The problems that need fixing in Obama’s Pakistan plan

With Vice President Joseph Biden now in Pakistan and several top Pakistani officials in Washington for Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service this week, there’s an opportunity for the Obama administration to address a long-standing weakness of its policy in the region — the absence of a clear plan to leverage U.S. resources to support political and ...

AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP/Getty Images

With Vice President Joseph Biden now in Pakistan and several top Pakistani officials in Washington for Richard Holbrooke's memorial service this week, there's an opportunity for the Obama administration to address a long-standing weakness of its policy in the region -- the absence of a clear plan to leverage U.S. resources to support political and economic reforms in Pakistan. Certainly, the Obama administration has, in just two years, increased resources for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but its current strategy suffers from two basic and encompassing flaws.

To begin, the overall regional strategy remains out of alignment -- resources are not properly matched with relative security threats. Pakistan presents graver security challenges today than Afghanistan, yet most of our debate is focused on Afghanistan. This fiscal year, the United States is set to spend about 10 times more in Afghanistan than it will in Pakistan. Yet in nuclear-armed Pakistan, with its 170 million people, more civilians died last year than did in Afghanistan, a country of about 30 million. And it was extremist groups operating in Pakistan who plotted recent terrorist attacks around the globe, orchestrated attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and assassinated prominent Pakistani leaders -- they even took over part of Pakistan's military headquarters in an attack and short-lived hostage incident in October 2009. Despite these threats, the current policy debate tends to treat Pakistan as secondary to Afghanistan -- the recent spate of Washington-based think-tank reports generally treat Pakistan as an adjunct to Afghanistan and barely scratch the surface on meeting the challenges ahead in Pakistan.

To be sure, the Obama administration has done quite a lot in Pakistan (some of which cannot be discussed publicly). Obama has undertaken a diplomatic full-court press on Pakistan, assembling a stellar team under diplomatic legend Richard Holbrooke until his tragic passing last month. It tripled nonmilitary assistance in the Kerry-Lugar bill and provided emergency efforts in response to last year's disastrous floods. Top administration officials have engaged a broader range of Pakistani leaders -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's two visits to Pakistan were effective diplomatic and strategic communications missions. And on the security front, Obama has more aggressively pursued suspected terrorists -- four times as many drone strikes were conducted in the president's first two years in office compared with the last five years of Bush's term. It set up a new counterinsurgency capability fund for Pakistan and increased efforts to support parts of the Pakistani security forces dealing with internal threats.

With Vice President Joseph Biden now in Pakistan and several top Pakistani officials in Washington for Richard Holbrooke’s memorial service this week, there’s an opportunity for the Obama administration to address a long-standing weakness of its policy in the region — the absence of a clear plan to leverage U.S. resources to support political and economic reforms in Pakistan. Certainly, the Obama administration has, in just two years, increased resources for both Pakistan and Afghanistan, but its current strategy suffers from two basic and encompassing flaws.

To begin, the overall regional strategy remains out of alignment — resources are not properly matched with relative security threats. Pakistan presents graver security challenges today than Afghanistan, yet most of our debate is focused on Afghanistan. This fiscal year, the United States is set to spend about 10 times more in Afghanistan than it will in Pakistan. Yet in nuclear-armed Pakistan, with its 170 million people, more civilians died last year than did in Afghanistan, a country of about 30 million. And it was extremist groups operating in Pakistan who plotted recent terrorist attacks around the globe, orchestrated attacks on U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, and assassinated prominent Pakistani leaders — they even took over part of Pakistan’s military headquarters in an attack and short-lived hostage incident in October 2009. Despite these threats, the current policy debate tends to treat Pakistan as secondary to Afghanistan — the recent spate of Washington-based think-tank reports generally treat Pakistan as an adjunct to Afghanistan and barely scratch the surface on meeting the challenges ahead in Pakistan.

To be sure, the Obama administration has done quite a lot in Pakistan (some of which cannot be discussed publicly). Obama has undertaken a diplomatic full-court press on Pakistan, assembling a stellar team under diplomatic legend Richard Holbrooke until his tragic passing last month. It tripled nonmilitary assistance in the Kerry-Lugar bill and provided emergency efforts in response to last year’s disastrous floods. Top administration officials have engaged a broader range of Pakistani leaders — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s two visits to Pakistan were effective diplomatic and strategic communications missions. And on the security front, Obama has more aggressively pursued suspected terrorists — four times as many drone strikes were conducted in the president’s first two years in office compared with the last five years of Bush’s term. It set up a new counterinsurgency capability fund for Pakistan and increased efforts to support parts of the Pakistani security forces dealing with internal threats.

Despite these increased efforts, the current strategy suffers from a second major flaw — insufficient attention to democratic governance and broader engagement between U.S. and Pakistani civil society groups. Before the Obama administration considers dedicating more resources to Pakistan — as it is reportedly doing — it should take these four steps aimed at helping Pakistan advance its democratic and economic transition while expanding the base of bilateral ties between our two countries. Without these steps, U.S. policy in Pakistan will remain trapped in the "transactional" relationship the Obama administration has sought to avoid with Pakistan.

First, the State Department should revise the regional stabilization strategy released last year, a document which barely mentions governance and human rights in Pakistan (in sharp contrast to significant attention to those issues in the Afghanistan sections). Women’s empowerment, rule of law, and strengthening institutions are highlighted in this strategy document — but the word "democracy" is avoided. This is unfortunate especially since Obama’s presidential policy directive (PDD) on global development, released last year, made "democratic governance" a priority. The interagency policy committee established at the National Security Council by that PDD should work with the entire interagency team for Pakistan to make democratic governance a top priority of all U.S. agencies. This interagency group should work with the team to formulate a "whole of government" approach that ensures that current Kerry-Lugar funding and security assistance, as well as any additional assistance provided to Pakistan, fosters proper checks and balances between the civilian government and security institutions.

Second, a new working group should be formed in the bilateral U.S.-Pakistan strategic dialogue. None of the current 13 working groups exclusively address democratic governance — rule of law is combined with counterterrorism, and there is a women’s empowerment group. Administration officials tell me that political reform and governance is raised in most working groups, but a separate group would elevate it as a priority. Specifically, this new democracy and governance working group can work to define steps to encourage parliamentary oversight of all executive agencies, strengthening the rule of law, and providing protection and support for civil society and democracy and human rights organizations.

Third, the administration and Congress should exercise more oversight of all U.S. taxpayer funds flowing into Pakistan, especially funding for security forces. Recent State Department reports raised serious concerns about the human rights record of Pakistan’s security forces, including allegations of extrajudicial killings and disappearances. U.S. law technically prohibits funding for foreign militaries facing credible charges of gross human rights violations — unfortunately the United States has too frequently ignored this law in Pakistan (as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan).

Fourth, Americans and Pakistanis should organize broader dialogues that examine ways business and civil society leaders from both countries can enhance ties between the two nations. Governments can only do so much, and the cooperative support networks and dialogues of the sort that I have been involved with through the U.S. Muslim Engagement Initiative can help move the bilateral relationship beyond the transactional, short-term focus.

Pakistan represents one of the most difficult test cases of the Obama administration’s "smart power" approach to national security — the effort to use all elements of national power. But without a more focused effort to create incentives for democratic reform in Pakistan, the United States risks providing a lifeline to a dysfunctional system of government that has not served its people and allowed extremism to metastasize.

Brian Katulis is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where his work focuses on U.S. national security. His past experience includes work at the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense under the Bill Clinton administration. He also worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, Freedom House, and former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey. He is the co-author of The Prosperity Agenda, a book on U.S. national security. Twitter: @Katulis

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